Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sandwich Life: Kaleidoscopes and the New Normal

Sometimes I feel like I’m waiting for the next crisis.

In my experience, just when you get accustomed to a situation, an unexpected emergency comes along to derail you and you’re thrust into a new reality you’re sure you can’t cope with. But amazingly you do and eventually it becomes the new normal.

I am constantly struck by the resiliency of the human animal. Our capacity to endure, to survive and even thrive after a traumatic event is astounding. A parent dies, a child is injured or falls ill, a teen gets into trouble, a spouse betrays the marital trust. And still we go on.

When I was six years old I got my tonsils removed. Some of the memories of my hospital stay are vivid, like waking each morning to my roommate’s bare butt in the bed next to mine, and throwing up on my brother’s shoes when he and my mother visited me after the surgery.

Memory from that age is not continuous. It doesn’t feel like this happened and then that, but more like flashes of lightning. A strobe image or episode here and then there.

My mother gave me several gifts while I was in hospital, most of which were designed to relieve the boredom. There were magazines, puzzle books and coloured pencils. And then she handed me a cardboard tube with a spyhole at one end. Attached to the other end was a round rotating container of colourful plastic beads. When I shook the contraption, the plastic pieces rattled within it.

This was my first kaleidoscope. I held the eyepiece up to the light and saw a fractured world of shape and colour. A starburst of glittering reds and blues. My mother reached out and turned the end piece and the entire scene changed. A whole new set of colours and shapes fell into place, this time predominantly green and yellow. It was different but equally beautiful.Kaleidoscope

When my father died and my ailing mother came to live with us, I thought the beads would never fall back into place, that life would never be beautiful again and I would live it perpetually suspended, everything slightly skewed.

In a way, I was right. Nothing would ever be the same. But, like a kaleidoscope, while you can’t get back that first pattern of reds and blues that you loved so much, you can find a new life pattern, and in it there is always beauty.

Writing Life: Annual Conference Trip Report OWC 2014

Each year, in early May, I attend the Ontario Writers’ Conference (OWC). An annual weekend of camaraderie among fellow writers, where we talk, eat and commiserate. At the venue, people I see only once a year, from Durham region, Toronto, Cambridge and Owen Sound, arrive and greet one another with hugs.

That May weekend, we arrived in Ajax as a small Ottawa contingent (we’re known as “The Ottawa Contingent”) of three: me, Kelly and Jeff.

My personal highlights included:

Wayson Choy, as always. He’s the conference’s honorary patron and attends every year, always delivering a stirring speech, and sometimes teaching a workshop or master class. This year it was a master class about daring to write your personal truth. He told those us who were privileged enough to be in attendance that truth is not fact but, instead, is a matter of perception.


The Master Class learns from the master, Wayson Choy.

“If I tell you my truth, you will add yours. You cannot help it.” ~ Wayson Choy

I was looking forward to, again, driving Wayson on Saturday morning from the hotel to the conference venue. This would be my third year and I value the one-on-one time with the master. That morning, however, when I asked him if I was driving him, he was unsure. He thought perhaps another person was picking him up. I told him I’d wait around for a few minutes and if no one came to get him, he could drive there with us, the Ottawa contingent. He agreed.

Ten minutes later, another woman who was attending the conference and staying in our hotel came through the lobby, spoke to Wayson, and off he went with her. “Hey, I said to my companions while he and the woman drove off, that’s my Wayson. That bitch stole my Wayson!” Ah, well, you snooze, you lose, I suppose. There’s always next year. To be fair, I later attended a workshop with the woman who stole my Wayson and she was not, in fact, a bitch.

No matter. There were people to meet, books to buy and workshops to attend.

Allyson Latta spoke about finding the courage to share your personal story. She also had some great tips for editing our work. I wish we’d had more time to absorb her wisdom.

Aside from emcee Dorothea Helms, aka The Writing Fairy (who did a fabulous job), my favourite lunch speaker was Andrew Pyper. We’d met recently at an event at the Rideau Street Chapters in Ottawa and I read his latest novel, The Demonologist. Now I’d become all fan-girl and I bought The Guardians and got him to sign it. Also, if you’ve never heard Andrew speak, know this: he’s gut-bustingly funnier than you’d expect a horror writer to be.

Back in December, when I was selecting my workshops, I realized I had a difficult choice to make, which happens when several workshops run concurrently. My good friend Allison Baggio was giving a talk about overcoming insecurities at the same time as Sam Hiyate, the literary agent, was scheduled to speak about writers, agents and the shifting landscape. Dang it! I’m horribly insecure, but I also don’t have an agent and I really want one (any agents reading this, I’m available). And tips about how to approach agents in the digital age are more than welcome. Sadly, I chose to miss Allison’s talk, although I heard it was awesome. Oh, and buy Allison’s books.

Priscila Uppal spoke about how to turn your obsessions into books. She talked about some of the things she’s obsessed with and how those translated into her work. She read excerpts from her published poetry, novel and memoir (impressive? yes!). I’m looking forward to reading her memoir, which sounds fascinating. And I learned that poetry does not, in fact, have to rhyme. Who knew (eh, Kevin)?!

The closing speaker was novelist Terry Fallis. If you plan to hear this man speak and you experience bladder leakage from sudden bursts of laughter, wear your Depends.

And then I won a raffle prize and another thing, which put a smile on my face!

As always, OWC 2014 was a joy. The organizers seem to get it running more smoothly every year and I can hardly wait for OWC 2015. Thank you, all!!

And now, here are some bad selfies:

MeandAllison MeandJeff MeandKelly MeandLori MeandME


Sandwich Life Missives: Good News/Bad News

This post is about how life as a member of the Sandwich Generation has its ups and downs.

I’ve been contemplating the nature of good news versus bad news. What constitutes “good news” and does its nature depend mainly on context? How relative is it; does bad news in one circumstance become good news in another?

Last week, and with mixed feelings, I traipsed off with my eighty-year-old mother to the Memory Disorders Clinic for a re-assessment (our third, at least). I waited until the morning of the appointment to tell her we were going because she gets anxious about such things and I didn’t want her to spend a sleepless night in useless worry. I also told her the appointment was to renew her prescription rather than to redo the memory testing. A small white lie. Very small. Very white.

As usual, the weather matched my feelings about going. That is, we drove there through a torrential downpour. Thankfully, the memory clinic is only thirty short kilometres from my house, through dense downtown traffic. I left an hour before the appointment and we made it on time.

A television in the waiting room was tuned into The Weather Network. These people must know my mother. It was a useful distraction because Dr. K, the memory doctor, was running half an hour late. Mum only glared at the clock and sighed six times. That’s a doctor’s office record for a half-hour wait. Yay, Weather Network.

The puddle of rainwater under my chair from my drenched coat had almost dried by the time Dr. K poked his head into the waiting room and called Mum’s name. After we got settled in his office chairs and before he started talking, I noticed the sound of the rainstorm outside. The listened to the wind howl around the old windows, like the ghost of all the memories his patients had ever lost as they swirled in mournful circles, trying to get back in.

And then the doctor started talking. He went through all the previous concerns and asked if we thought the medication had helped (who knows) and whether things had stabilized or grown worse (hard to say). And then he pulled out the sheets of paper and a pen for the actual memory testing. These are standardized sets of questions designed to test various aspects of memory and I’d heard them all before, in one form or another.

He asked her the date and she hemmed and hawed and then, miraculously, got it right. Day, month and year. He asked her to remember three words and repeat them back to him, and two minutes later he asked for the three words. She didn’t know he’d given her three words to remember, never mind what they were. On it went. Tests of short-term memory went horribly badly. But on tests of puzzle-related skills she seemed to do remarkably well.

After the test he said that, overall, she’d done significantly better than the time before. Nowhere near normal, but better. We decided to stay the course with the medication and he recommended I make an appointment with the secretary for a year from that date. No one ever knows what they’ll be doing in a year, so you just have to wing it and hope for the best.

Outside his office he stopped us and with furrowed brow asked my mother to walk for him, and then to lift her arm and do some other physical tests.

“Hm,” he said, a hand cupping his chin. “I see some signs of early Parkinson’s Disease.”

I was not shocked. Given her shuffling gait and the posture of her hands and body I’d thought of this before. But no professional had ever actually said it. It felt like a figurative blow to the solar plexus.

“If it gets worse,” he continued, “call the office and arrange to come back sooner.”

I assumed it would be obvious if something “gets worse.” There were no further specifics on the matter.

Dazed and with the ambivalence that comes only with the one-two punch of good news/bad news, I wandered toward the receptionist, mind whirring. The good news wasn’t particularly good and the bad news seemed pretty bad, but not astonishing. How would I process this? What would the fallout be? Do higher scores on the test mean that she’ll suddenly be able to make a sandwich or do her taxes? No. Does an observation of small, very early Parkinson’s symptoms mean she’ll be in a wheelchair tomorrow? No. Does either “revelation” mean anything at all? I don’t know.

I booked the appointment. The one for next year. One year from that date. Three-hundred and sixty-five days, twelve months, and four seasons away.

Again, as before, I was to be cast out for a year without direction, as if into the swirling winds of a spring rainstorm, the randomness of which I could not control.